A Short History of the Shadow

A Short History of the Shadow

by Charles Wright

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Luminous new poems from one who "has long been a poet of gorgeous description" —William Logan, The New Criterion

Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.
Don't just do something, sit there.
And so I have, so I have,
the seasons curling around me like smoke,
Gone to the end of the earth and back without a sound.—from "Body and Soul II"

This is Charles Wright's first collection of verse since the gathering, in Negative Blue, of his "Appalachian Book of the Dead," a trilogy of trilogies hailed "among the great long poems of the century" (James Longenbach, Boston Review). In A Short History of the Shadow, Wright's return to the landscapes of his early work finds his art resilient in a world haunted by death and the dead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374528799
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/02/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.22(d)

About the Author

Charles Wright, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award, teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Read an Excerpt

A Short History of the Shadow

By Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2002 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7745-0



* * *


    I sit where I always sit, in back of the Buddha,
    Red leather wing chair, pony skin trunk
    under my feet,
    Skylight above me, Chinese and Indian rugs on the floor.
    I March, 1998, where to begin again?

    Over there's the ur-photograph,
    Giorgio Morandi, glasses pushed up on his forehead,
    Looking hard at four objects —
    Two olive oil tins, one wine bottle, one flower vase,
    A universe of form and structure,

    The universe constricting in front of his eyes,
    angelic orders
    And applications scraped down
    To paint on an easel stand, some in the frame, some not.
    Bologna, my friend, Bologna, world's bite and world's end.

    * * *

    It's only in darkness you can see the light, only
    From emptiness that things start to fill,
    I read once in a dream, I read in a book
    under the pink
    Redundancies of the spring peach trees.

    Old fires, old geographies.
    In that case, make it old, I say, make it singular
    In its next resurrection,
    White violets like photographs on the tombstone of the yard.
    Each year it happens this way, each year
    Something dead comes back and lifts up its arms,
    puts down its luggage
    And says — in the same costume, down-at-heels, badly sewn —
    I bring you good news from the other world.

    * * *

    One hand on the sun, one hand on the moon, both feet bare,
    God of the late
    Mediterranean Renaissance
    Breaststrokes across the heavens.
    Easter, and all who've been otherwised peek from their shells,

    Thunderheads gathering at the rear
    abyss of things,
    Lightning, quick swizzle sticks, troubling the dark in-between.
    You're everything that I'm not, they think,
    I'll fly away, Lord, I'll fly away.

    April's agnostic and nickel-plated and skin deep,
    Glitter and bead-spangle, haute couture,
    The world its runway, slink-step and glide.
    Roll the stone slowly as it vogues and turns,
    roll the stone slowly.

    * * *

    Well, that was a month ago. May now,
    What's sure to arrive has since arrived and been replaced,
    Snick-snack, lock and load, grey heart's bull's-eye,
    A little noon music out of the trees,
    a sonatina in green.

    Spring passes. Across the room, on the opposite wall,
    A 19th-century photograph
    Of the Roman arena in Verona. Inside,
    stone tiers and stone gate.
    Over the outer portico, the ghost of Catullus at sky's end.

    The morning and evening stars never meet,
    nor summer and spring:
    Beauty has been my misfortune,
    hard journey, uncomfortable resting place.
    Whatever it is I have looked for
    Is tiny, so tiny it can dance in the palm of my hand.

    * * *

    This is the moment of our disregard —
    just after supper,
    Unseasonable hail in huddles across the porch,
    The dogs whimpering,
    thunder and lightning eddying off toward the east,
    Nothing to answer back to, nothing to dress us down.

    Thus do we slide into our disbelief
    and disaffection,
    Caught in the weeds and understory of our own lives,
    Bad weather, bad dreams.
    Proper attention is our refuge now, our perch and our praise.

    So? So. The moon has its rain-ring auraed around it —
    The more that we think we understand, the less we see,
    Back yard becoming an obelisk
    Of darkness into the sky,
    no hieroglyphs, no words to the wise.


    Pale sky and one star, pale star,
    Twilight twisting down like a slow screw
    Into the balsa wood of Saturday afternoon,
    Late Saturday afternoon,
    a solitary plane
    Eating its way like a moth across the bolt of dusk
    Hung like cheesecloth above us.

    Ugo would love this, Ugo Foscolo,
    everything outline,
    Crepuscular, still undewed,
    Ugo, it's said, who never uttered a commonplace,
    His soul transfixed by a cypress tree,
    The twilight twisted into his heart,
    Ugo, immortal, unleavened, when death gave him fame and rest.

    * * *

    Tonight, however's, a different story,
    flat, uninterrupted sky,
    Memorial Day,
    Rain off, then back again, a
    Second-hand light, dishcloth light, wrung out and almost gone.
    9:30 p.m.,
    Lightning bugs, three of them, in my neighbor's yard,
    leaping beyond the hedge.

    What can I possibly see back here I haven't seen before?
    Is landscape, like God, a Heraclitean river?
    Is language a night flight and sea-change?
    My father was born Victorian,
    knee-pants and red ringlets,
    Sepia photographs and desk drawers
    Vanishing under my ghostly touch.

    * * *

    I sit where I always sit,
    knockoff Brown Jordan plastic chair,
    East-facing, lingering late spring dusk,
    Virginia privet and honeysuckle in full-blown bloom and too sweet,
    Sky with its glazed look, and half-lidded.
    And here's my bat back,
    The world resettled and familiar, a self-wrung sigh.

    César Vallejo, on nights like this,
    His mind in a crash dive from Paris to South America,
    Would look from the Luxembourg
    Gardens or some rooftop
    For the crack, the tiny crack,
    In the east that separates one world from the next,
    this one from
    That one I look for it too.

    * * *

    Now into June, cloverheads tight, Seurating the yard,
    This land-washed jatte fireflied and Corgied.
    How sweet familiarity is,
    With its known bird songs,
    its known smudges.
    Today, as Machado said, is every day and all days.
    A little wind from the southwest, a little wind in the apple tree.

    And dusk descending, or dusk rising,
    Sky flat as a sheet, smooth as bedclothes on a dead woman's bed.
    It's always this way at 9 p.m.,
    Half moon like a cleaved ox wheel
    In miniature,
    Machado smooth as a night bird half-asleep in the gum tree.

    * * *

    Crepuscularum. The back yard etched in and scored by
    Lack of light.
    What's dark gets darker against the shrinking, twilit sky,
    Hedgerow and hemlock and maple tree.
    A couple of lightning bugs.
    Dog bark and summer smell.
    Mosquitos. The evening star.

    Been rode hard and put up wet, someone said to me once
    In Kalispell, meaning,
    I hope I'm being used for a higher good,
    Or one I'm not aware of.
    Dino Campana could have said that.
    Said it and meant, Lord, that's it. And please turn off the light.
    And he did.


    August. Cloud-forest Chinese Ming screen
    Beyond the south meadow and up the attendant feeder hills.
    No wind and a steady rain.
    Raven squawk and swallow bank,
    screen shift at meadow mouth.
    I find I have nothing to say to any of this.

    Northwest Montana under the summer's backlash and wet watch.
    The tall marsh grass kneels to their bidding.
    The waters of Basin Creek pucker their tiny lips,
    their thousand tiny lips.
    The clouds shatter and the clouds re-form.
    I find I have nothing to say to any of this.

    * * *

    Osip Mandelstam, toward the end of his short, word-fiery life,
    Said heaven was whole, and that flowers live forever.
    He also said what's ahead of us is only someone's word —
    We were born to escort the dead, and be escorted ourselves.
    Down by the creek bank, the sound that the water makes is almost human.

    Down by the creek bank, the water sound
    Is almost like singing, a song in praise of itself.
    The light, like a water spider, stretches across the backwash.
    Under the big spruce at the channel's bend,
    someone's name and dates
    Mirror the sky, whose way, like Mandelstam's, was lost in the sky.

    * * *

    Last night like spider light webbed and still in the tall grass,
    Twin fawns and a doe at the salt lick,
    Hail-battered marigolds and delphinium against the cabin wall,
    Coyote about to trot out
    Behind the diversion ditch and head for his breakfast.

    I don't understand how white clouds can cover the earth.
    I don't understand how a line of verse can fall from the sky.
    I don't understand how the meadow mouth
    opens and closes.

    I don't understand why the water keeps saying yes, O, yes.
    I don't understand the black lake that pools in my heart.

    * * *

    Late afternoon and long shadows across the deer ford,
    Mt. Henry volcanic and hushed against the west sky and cloud clot.
    Dante, according to Mandelstam,
    Was not descriptive, was never descriptive, his similes
    Exposing the inner image of the structure's force —

    Birds were a pilgrimage, for instance, rivers political.
    Cloud and cloud-flow having their way,
    cloud-rags and cloud-rugs
    Inching across the upper meadow, now the lower.
    Inside the image inside the image is the image, he might have added,
    Crystalline, pristine. But he didn't.

    * * *

    I sit where I always sit,
    northwest window on Basin Creek,
    A homestead cabin from 1912,
    Pine table knocked together some 30 years ago,
    Indian saddle blanket, Peruvian bedspread
    And Mykonos woven rug
    nailed up on the log walls.

    Whose childhood is this in little rectangles over the chair?
    Two kids with a stringer of sunfish,
    Two kids in their bathing suits,
    the short shadows of evergreens?
    Under the meadow's summer coat, forgotten bones have turned black.
    O, not again, goes the sour song of the just resurrected.

    * * *

    To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it,
    Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace.
    For over 30 years I've looked at this meadow and mountain landscape
    Till it's become iconic and small
    And sits, like a medieval traveller's triptych,
    radiant in its disregard.

    All morning the donors have knelt, in profile, where the creeks meet,
    The thin spruce have listened to what the rustle is, and nodded —
    Like coyote's ears, they're split in the wind.
    Tonight, after 10 p.m., the moon will varnish everything
    With a brilliance worthy, wherever that is, of Paradise.



* * *


    Moonlight blank newsprint across the lawn,
    Three-quarters moon, give or take,
    empty notebook, no wind.
    When it's over it's over,
    Cloud crossing moon, half-clear sky, then
    candle-sputter, shadow-crawl.

    Well, that's a couple of miles down the road,
    he said to himself,
    Watching the moonlight lacquer and mat.
    Surely a mile and then some,
    Watching the clouds come and the clouds go.

    Citronella against the tiny ones, the biters,
    Sky pewter-colored and suddenly indistinct now —
    Sweet smell of citronella
    beautiful, endless youth.
    The book of moonlight has two pages and this one's the first one.

    Forsake me not utterly,
    Beato immaculato,
    and make me marvellous in your eyes.


    If God is the one and infinite,
    If God is the clear-cut and cloudless sky,
    Powers, Dominions,
    If God is a bed and a held breath,
    You have a reason, my friend, to be inquisitive.

    The morning smells like Milan, autumnal Milan, fog
    And a fine rain in the trees,
    huge plane leaves stuck on the sidewalks
    Throughout the Sforza gardens,
    Villa Guastalla calm as a ship
    through the part-brown park and the mist.

    The Japanese say we live in twelve pictures thrown from the floating world,
    Where sin is a ladder to heaven.
    Or has been. Or can be.

    First light in the east last light in the west and us in between,
    Lives marginal at best
    and marginally brought to bear.
    But that's okay, given the star-struck alternative.
    Remember us in the ghost hour remember us in our need.


    The late September night is a train of thought, a wound
    That doesn't bleed, dead grass that's still green,
    No off-shoots, no elegance,
    the late September night,
    Deprived of adjectives, abstraction's utmost and gleam.

    It has been said there is an end to the giving out of names.
    It has been said that everything that's written has grown hollow.
    It has been said that scorpions dance where language falters and gives way.
    It has been said that something shines out from every darkness,
    that something shines out.

    Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
    Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
    Alphabetized across the back yard,
    desolate syllables
    That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.

    Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
    Morning arrives and that's it.
    Sunlight darkens the earth.


    Afternoon, summer half-gone, autumn half-here, strange day,
    Most of the grass dead, blue-grey cloud shelf
    Thickening down from the west,
    yard light
    Like the inside of a diving bell not yet in deep water.

    The afternoon's got our number.
    If only the rain
    Would come and wash it off our foreheads.
    If only the rain would come, unstrung through the hard weeds,
    And wash us — sprung syllables, little eternities,

    The rain with its thick fingers, the rain which will fill us
    As slowly as hair grows, as slowly as fingernails —
    Immaculate as the Jordan, Lord, Giovanni Battista
    Out of the hills, hands faith-faint,
    huge as all nothingness.

    Where the sky disappears, the horizon spurts like a needle.
    We all have death's birthmark on our faces,
    sometimes red, sometimes unseeable.


Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2002 Charles Wright. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Looking Around,
Looking Around II,
Looking Around III,
If This Is Where God's At, Why Is That Fish Dead?,
Charlottesville Nocturne,
It's Dry for Sure, Dry Enough to Spit Cotton,
If My Glasses Were Better, I Could See Where I'm Headed For,
Lost Language,
On Heaven Considered as What Will Cover Us and Stony Comforter,
Mildly Depressed, Far from Home, I Go Outside for a While,
Mondo Orfeo,
The Secret of Poetry,
In Praise of Thomas Hardy,
Night Rider,
A Short History of the Shadow,
River Run,
Appalachian Lullaby,
Night Music,
Thinking of Wallace Stevens at the Beginning of Spring,
Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture,
Nine-Panel Yaak River Screen,
The Wind Is Calm and Comes from Another World,
Summer Mornings,
Thinking of Marsilio Ficino at the First Hint of Autumn,
Via Negativa,
Ars Poetica III,
'54 Chevy,
Nostalgia II,
Body and Soul,
Hard Dreams,
Body and Soul II,
About the Author,
Also by Charles Wright,

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